by Walter Smith
In 2019 the Carter G. Woodson Institute, founded to teach and research African-American studies at the University of Virginia, announced a major initiative: a six-part podcast series exploring “Jefferson’s complicated legacy.” Funding was obtained, a launch party was thrown, and two episodes were aired. Then the podcast went silent.
What happened? Why didn’t the Woodson Institute follow the project to completion? Why would UVa heavily promote the initiative in its house media only to let it quietly disappear?
It is an arcane story, yet a telling one. It reveals much about what UVa has become. Ever since the infamous F— UVA sign was posted on the Lawn and its author referred in a secretly recorded conversation with President Jim Ryan to Thomas Jefferson as a “slave-holding rapist,” many alumni have wondered where the animus against Jefferson originated. The answer is that it comes in considerable part from the administration.
The rollout. The Woodson Institute filed a grant application with UVA’s Bicentennial Fund to produce the six episodes and was awarded $20,000 to do so. The timeline in the grant application anticipated a release in the fall of 2018 in the lead-up to the 200th anniversary of UVa’s founding.
The rollout didn’t take place until February 2019. That month UVA Today featured, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” billing it as a six-part series exploring explore Jefferson’s legacy.
“Our series wanted to seize the opportunity of the University’s bicentennial to ask, ‘What could it mean to rethink and update Jefferson for our current age, for the next generation?’” co-producer Deborah McDowell told UVA Today.
The first episode would air on February 18, 2019. Thereafter, the plan was to release podcasts monthly, covering such topics as the institution of slavery at Monticello and at the University; Sally Hemings and the Hemings family; Jefferson’s role in the history and formation of the prison system; and the role of the Haitian Revolution in Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. The project team anticipated engaging subscribers on social media, posting behind-the-scenes materials from each episode, linking to further references, and showcasing candid comments about Jefferson and the University.
The College of Arts & Sciences, headed at that time by now-Provost Ian Baucom, also promoted the podcast series.
“We’ve seen a lot of projects that look toward the past and the impact of slavery at the University of Virginia, but we’re really interested in looking at the future as well, thinking of the ways we can talk about Jefferson in more complicated, more nuanced ways,” said co-producer James Perla. “This podcast series allows us to spend time with the complexities and inconsistencies in Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ that help to illuminate many of the issues with which we are still struggling today, largely because we have continually avoided confronting them honestly and straightforwardly.”
Both articles mentioned a “launch party” on February 15, 2019, and a website where all the info, episodes and raw material would be available. Today that website returns a 404 message. Only two episodes were produced, and they are exceedingly difficult to locate.
Episode 1. Episode 1 focused on Query 14 in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” one of 23 queries posed to Jefferson by the Secretary of the French legation to the United States.
I found the NPR-ish, quasi-intellectual cadence a little off-putting and the tendentious content even more objectionable. Please listen for yourself. To get a flavor of the perspective of the narrators and contributors, you can find the entire podcast here. For highlights, I would suggest the following:
In response to one question, Jefferson described a plan for emancipation of the slaves and added this speculation: “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Jefferson explained his thinking based on his observations of slaves, suppositions about differences between whites and blacks, and his belief that emancipation presented practical difficulties within Virginia society for whites and blacks.
Proclaiming that Jefferson’s contradictions made him a hypocrite, the Woodson podcast performers raised the issue of his intimate relations with his slave Sally Hemings. Expanding upon the theme, they suggested that the system of racism that persists to this day could be traced back to Jefferson’s thoughts in the “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
The criticisms, I find, were highly polemical. They ignored the context of the times, and they overlooked Jefferson’s many writings condemning slavery and actions limiting its scope. For a student of history, the podcast is useless. However, does provide insight into an all-too-common mindset at UVa.
The podcast concluded with a request to subscribe, a promo for Episode 2, and a reminder that all resources for the series would be found at https://notes.woodson.virginia.edu/episodes/… which now returns the 404 message.
The Jefferson-Hemings relationship has been written and speculated about since 1802 when journalist James Thompson Callender, rejected by Jefferson for a government appointment, brought it to the public’s attention. The allegations went around the world many times before the truth could find its pants! Countless books and articles have been written about the alleged dalliance.
The reality of the relationship is disputed, however, and UVa officials know it, or should know it. The lead scholar of a commission of 13 Jefferson experts which concluded that the paternity allegation was almost certainly false is a retired UVa professor, Bob Turner!
Episode 2 presumed all six children of Sally Hemings were fathered by Jefferson despite considerable contradicting evidence. Worse, the episode almost insisted that any relationship had to be rape. In the first minute, Professor McDowell asserted that the podcast intends to “open up spaces … that might lead us in other directions, directions that have been suppressed, or distorted, if not avoided altogether.” Later Melody Barnes, executive of the Karsh Institute for Democracy, made a comment about the brutality of slavery that I believe was intended to suggest that Jefferson was the brutalizer.
The entire presentation, asserting things as true which are either known not to be true or are highly debatable, was dishonest. I’ll offer two examples.
First, the speakers concentrated on the preferential treatment given the Hemings family as proof of a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship. Hemings herself was the product of multi-generational miscegenation on the side of Martha Jefferson’s family, the Wayles. She likely was Martha’s half sister. It seems not to have occurred to the Woodson commentators that Jefferson considered that fact in favoring her.
Second, I refer to the continued reference to Madison Hemings’ “testimony.” Most of the lore about a relationship comes from a Madison Hemings interview with an Ohio paper in 1873. His mother had been dead for nearly 40 years. He had lived many years as a free man, and now, post-Civil War, all former slaves had been freed. Latching onto Jefferson’s prestige would have given him an elevated status in the Black community. Whatever the truth of his assertions, the interview was not “testimony,” as in a sworn, adversarial proceeding.
Episode 2 closed with a reference to the same website that no longer exists for further information, along with credits and requests for subscribing to the series.
As confirmed by the university’s response to my FOIA query, the Woodson Institute’s podcasts on “Notes on the State of Virginia,” episodes 3 through 6, do not exist. Stated the FOIA officer: “Only two episodes of this podcast were produced because the onset of the COVID pandemic prevented the production of the remaining episodes. There are no additional episodes.”
So, what happened? UVa and the Bicentennial Fund had funded production of six podcasts, and UVa Today and the College of Arts & Sciences had promoted it. Why was the project never completed?
The COVID epidemic explanation defies credulity. Woodson aimed originally, as outlined in the grant application, to complete the project by the fall of 2018. The project launched in February 2019. COVID did not reach the U.S. until March 2020 — a full year later! If COVID lockdowns delayed production of final episodes, why was production not resumed after the university reopened?
A more likely explanation is that the initial podcasts were not well received. Perhaps the presentation was so dull that no one listened to them, and Woodson scrapped the series out of pure embarrassment. I cannot dismiss that possibility.
However, there is another potential explanation. Someone spiked the project.
Before the nation entered a frenzy over race after the George Floyd killing in early 2020, the podcast subject matter was kryptonite. It was one thing to purge the names of long-forgotten Confederates, slave holders and segregationists from memorials and buildings, as the Racial Equity Task Force recommended, but slamming the author of the Declaration of Independence was a bridge too far. In public Ryan walked a fine line, speaking of the necessity of “contextualizing” Jefferson’s statue on grounds, yet declining to disavow the university’s founder as many urged him to. “I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort,” he said in October 2022. “As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”
Episode 2 in particular was radioactive. The episode revealed deep hostility to Jefferson, an unwillingness to consider anything that would cast him in a favorable light, and an eagerness to assume the most sinister of motives in everything he said and did.
I searched diligently for the Episodes and resources at the Woodson Institute website. There is a Videos tab, but no mention of the podcasts. Since the linked videos were on YouTube, I clicked the Woodson logo and found its YouTube channel. There have been 99 videos put up. I found a short video prepared for the podcast “Launch Party.” But there are no YouTube links to the podcasts themselves!
Only by exploring every aspect of the Woodson site did I find the first two “Notes on the State” podcast with a WordPress URL. Why would an academic institution keep a document on WordPress, as opposed to its own server? At least the supporting documents still exist, mostly. In the “Archive” there are 14 full interviews of 15 people. However, the “About” tab says 17 interviews were conducted. Why were they hidden or deleted?
There is no explanation anywhere from UVa or the Woodson Institute on why the series was abruptly terminated or why the materials were deleted or buried.
Many signs point to the conclusion that someone put the kibosh on the project. That someone had to be a person high in the UVa hierarchy, maybe Ryan himself. Why? Perhaps because deep-pocketed donors were offended, or because Ryan feared they might be offended. In this interpretation Ryan, fearing a backlash from woke faculty members, killed the project quietly. This is pure speculation, of course. But some explanation is called for.
Ryan on Jefferson. Ryan invokes the name of Thomas Jefferson seldomly in his formal remarks, and when he does, it is rarely to sing his praises. In one speech outlining his vision for the university, Ryan refers to Jefferson’s “brilliance” but also his “brutality.” His feelings are clearly ambivalent.
Ryan has never publicly addressed the deplorable narratives that the Student Guides have inflicted upon visitors of the university. The Jefferson Council has documented the warped training materials and the negative reaction of many prospects and their parents. Shouldn’t tours given in collaboration with the Admissions Office “sell” the school by emphasizing Jefferson’s virtues? Shouldn’t the president of the university set the tone? Under pressure from former Rector Whitt Clement and other members of the Board of visitors, the Admissions Office promised to make changes in the new academic year. We shall see.
Then there’s Ian Baucom, a man of the left who was hired in 2014 (four years before Ryan became president) as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Among his academic accomplishments, Baucom authored a book, “Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History.” Based on an atrocious incident in which the captain of a slaving ship threw 133 slaves overboard in order to collect on an insurance claim, according to the Amazon book blurb, Baucom argues that the tragedy is central not only to our understanding of the slave trade but “the history of modern capital and ethics.”
According to Deborah McDowell, who was part of the search committee, Baucom said repeatedly during his interview for his position as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences that UVa must become the university of Thomas Jefferson AND Sally Hemings. Here is an excerpt from his interview for the Woodson podcasts:
We were founded by a community in Liberty and a community in bondage. We were founded and built by people who were enslaved. Sally Hemings was there at our beginning. And in some ways it’s a fairly simple attempt to recognize the plurality in the brokenness of that founding. It’s a recognition statement. I try to think of it as a, an attempt to name to whom we belong. Whose are we? Whose children are we? Whose Generations are we? and there’s something very particular about Sally Hemings and the duration of women and men, black women and men, African American women and men to whom we need to belong. There’s something, to me, symbolic about saying Sally Hemings. As a woman whose name, names many who for many years were not allowed to belong to this institution. But to whom we belong, Republic. And it’s a statement of aspiration not of who we are yet, but of who we need to be. I think of it as a challenge as much to myself as anyone else. What would it mean to make that true in practice and action and not only in recognition and from that perspective, um, have we yet fully become Sally Hemings University? No, we haven’t. That work isn’t done…
The passage is impenetrable and absurd. Whatever the nature of her relationship with Jefferson, Hemings played no role in the formation of UVa. She wasn’t “there at the beginning.” She was in Monticello. Yet far from finding Baucom’s views idiosyncratic or extreme, Ryan promoted him — in violation of normal practice, without a nationwide search — to provost, the chief academic officer for UVa.
Baucom maintains that intellectual diversity is alive at Mr. Jefferson’s university. Yet the prevailing zeitgeist at UVa brooks no dissent on the Hemings controversy. Given that the expert on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a retired UVa law school professor, Bob Turner, it is striking that the administration has never provided an educational forum to sift through what is known about Hemings, what is speculated, and what is outright false.
UVa claims to be “unequivocal” in support of “free expression and free inquiry.” That is a lie. Professor Turner has been champing at the bit to set the record straight. But rather than heeding Jefferson’s admonition to “follow the truth wherever it will lead,” UVa promotes the false narrative at every turn and makes no effort to expose members of the university community to any other view.
But there are limits, it appears, to how vehemently Jefferson may be excoriated. Either the podcasts were so terminally dull that no one listened to them and the producers scrapped it, or the revisionist history went too far. Calling the founding father a rapist might alienate tradition-minded alumni who remain stubbornly retrograde in their appreciation of Jefferson, thus threatening the flow of donations that are the life blood of the university. And that the university’s leadership could never abide.
Walter Smith is chair of the Jefferson Council’s research committee. The views expressed here are entirely his own.